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Home > ‘The Swan’ (2023): A Review

‘The Swan’ (2023): A Review

When two armed teenage bullies happen upon their school’s star pupil, they torture him until he has taken too much, and the situation shockingly changes. The animated Peter Watson through binoculars in 'The Swan' (2023).

‘The Swan’ Is A Strange Bird

Sadistically cruel and macabre, Roald Dahl’s short story, The Swan (1977), is literarily a strange bird – but it may also be one of his most heroically transcendent tales. Dahl is most famous for his children’s books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and Matilda (1988). Matilda’s headmistress and archenemy, Miss Trunchbulls, maybe his most infamous sadist, and before his breakthrough children’s book James and the Giant Peach (1961), Dahl had written macabre short stories with twisted endings, some of which had been adapted into episodes of the weekly TV anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962) hosted by “The Master of Suspense,” director Alfred Hitchcock. 

The plot of Dahl’s The Swan is unique. Two fifteen-year-old sadistic sociopaths, Ernie and Raymond, freshly armed with a .22 rifle, go on an avian killing spree, shooting every bird they can until they chance upon their school’s star pupil, 13-year-old Peter Watson. The older boys seize the opportunity to capture the significantly smaller and unarmed boy, and they scheme one wicked, potentially murderous torture after another on him until Peter has had enough. There’s evidence of all the characteristics of a thriller: a protagonist in danger, intrigue, and an adventurous story that evokes suspense, fear, and thrills. But it’s what happens when, as Dahl writes, Peter Watson has “taken too much” that transfigures the tale into a hero’s journey where Ernie and Raymond are the villains and the tortures they’ve meted out are the ordeals for the heroic Peter. 

Director Wes Anderson’s The Swan Is Stranger

Dahl’s The Swan is strange, but director Wes Anderson’s adaptation of it is remarkably strange. Anderson may be best known for his animated adaptation of another Dahl story, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). But beyond his individual movies, he’s known as an auteur, a director whose imagery becomes more important in telling his stories than the script, making him the actual author of his motion pictures. Anderson illustrates his narratives with balanced visual compositions rendered in a palette that’s over-saturated in color but limited in tones, contrast, and hues. His stories, like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), characteristically include an ensemble of actors. In his last feature film, Asteroid City (2023), and in the first adaptation of Dahl’s short stories for Netflix, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023), he’s exhibited narratives where an author or other narrator breaks the fourth wall to narrate a story directly to the viewer on conspicuously theatrical sets.

But, where The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is literally wonderful from its script to its direction, The Swan’s (2023) austere wonders are its stark distillation and illustration of Dahl’s text. Anderson deletes Ernie’s abusive father, who buys his son (described as “dangerous, crazy, stupid”) a rifle for his fifteenth birthday, and Ernie and Raymond only appear in narration that seems copied from Dahl’s story and pasted into the monologue of Anderson’s Narrator (Rupert Friend). The Narrator seems to wait for his cue, aware of his performance, and then excellently recites The Swan through the fourth wall to the viewer, giving credible voices to Ernie and Raymond as he stands in a set that portrays the narrow hedgerow of the story. The hedgerow has hidden doors for the entrances and exits of four stagehands who illustrate the tale with objects along with the Narrator. When he recites, “Ernie had been given a rifle for his birthday. He took the gun and a box of bullets and went out to see what he could kill,” a stagehand enters with a rifle and holds it over his head. Later, a stagehand enters with Ernie and Raymond’s string of dead birds.

When two armed teenage bullies happen upon their school’s star pupil, they torture him until he has taken too much, and the situation shockingly changes. Asa Jennings stars as Peter Watson and Rupert Friend as Narrator in "The Swan" (2023).
Asa Jennings stars as Peter Watson and Rupert Friend as Narrator in “The Swan” (2023). Image courtesy of Netflix.

The Narrator first introduces Peter Watson (Asa Jennings) with a black and white photograph of the boy that he presents from his jacket pocket. When Peter actually enters the scene, he’s as much of a prop as Ernie’s rifle. Anderson even eschews showing Peter’s thrilling first brush with death at the hands of Ernie and Raymond and instead has the Narrator declaim it on the scene. The effect is like watching a book on film. It’s Ralph Fiennes’ Roald Dahl who takes over the narration when Peter has “taken too much.”

This 17-minute film may provoke hours of questions. Why the limited cast? Why the conspicuous theatricality? It seems that Anderson’s focus is Peter Watson’s heroism in Roald Dahl’s text and that he chose to strip down Dahl’s problematic tale to make that feature striking. Of course, there may have been other, more practical reasons to exclude an actual Ernie and Raymond from his script. In post-Columbine High School America, any story where a 15-year-old goes out with his birthday rifle “to see what he could kill” risks subsumption into narratives of school shootings. Ernie and his family, their dialect, lawlessness, and violence are signs of Dahl’s classism and his prejudice against the English working class that he calls hooligans in The Swan. Perhaps the most effective method for Anderson to keep on point was to essentialize the story into minimalist theater with an animated climax and film it.                   

Actors Rupert Friend and Ralph Fiennes Are the Wings of The Swan

If Dahl’s text is the body of The Swan, then Rupert Friend’s and Ralph Fiennes’ performances are its wings. Anderson, like other auteurs, usually collaborates with particular actors more than once. Here, he reunites with Friend from Asteroid City and The French Dispatch (2021) and Fiennes from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Friend is a marvelous actor. His stiff upper-lipped Narrarator effectively channels the voices of his doppelgänger Peter and of Peter’s nemeses, the juvenile louts, Ernie and Raymond. Fiennes’ Dahl, though, is the heart and soul of The Swan. With a weary forbearance, he appears like an ideal English father as he delivers, directly from the text, the key soliloquy that simply explains the crux of the story’s gist as if to a child.    

The Swan Flies in the Face of the Signature Wes Anderson Film

In a few aspects, The Swan flies in the face of the signature Wes Anderson film. He eschews an ensemble cast playing his unique style of comedy for two narrators, Narrator and Roald Dahl; the mute, living prop Peter Watson; and four stagehands who sparingly illustrate the narrative of a modern, heroic myth. His visual compositions are less symmetrical. His famous hues have been muted to become as restrained as Fiennes’ voice as Dahl. But his characteristically restricted tonal range now runs the gamut from pitch black to swan white. Compared to his much more luxurious cinematic vehicles – most of his movies from The Royal Tenenbaums to even the short The Wonderful Story of Henry SugarThe Swan is a dragster where every component and aspect is essential to take its plot from inciting incident to climax to denouement in 17 minutes. 

Does The Swan fly?

The Swan may be the darkest and most transcendent piece among Roald Dahl’s writings or Wes Anderson’s films, and Anderson’s adaptation is stark. Though Dahl’s story is a kind of thriller, this film is no popcorn movie. Anderson has abstracted and essentialized the story to a book on film recited in a minimalist theater, and he’s done it excellently. But The Swan is the type of movie that may only really fly in an art house cinema.  

Stream The Swan on Netflix now.

When two armed teenage bullies happen upon their school’s star pupil, they torture him until he has taken too much, and the situation shockingly changes. Asa Jennings and Rupert Friend star as Peter Watson and Narrator with Eliel Ford, Truman Hanks, Benoît Herlin, and Octavio Tapia are each credited as Stagehand.
Asa Jennings and Rupert Friend star as Peter Watson and Narrator with Eliel Ford, Truman Hanks, Benoît Herlin, and Octavio Tapia are each credited as Stagehand. Image courtesy of Netflix.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023) Official Netflix Trailer

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James Keith La Croix has worked in and around the entertainment industry for years. He majored in film studies at Wayne State University and in Live Action Video at the College for Creative Studies. He wrote reviews, interviews, and features on cinema for the Detroit’s Metro Times.

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Elke Simmons' writing portfolio includes contributions to The Laredo Morning Times, Walt Disney World Eyes and Ears, Extinction Rebellion (XR) News/Blog, and Dead Talk News.